American Idol Season 2 Winner!
Partway through the second American Idol in early 2003, guest judge Gladys Knight christened corpulent crooner Ruben Studdard a “velvet teddy bear,” a nod to his smooth, Luther Vandross-styled voice and his Barry White-sized girth. It was a nickname that stuck, since it captured the persona of the 25-year-old Birmingham, AL, native who had unexpectedly become the front-runner in the national televised talent show. Surrounded by skinny kids emulating Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, the two singers who walked away with the debut American Idol in 2002, Studdard stood out with his massive frame, winning smile, easygoing style, mellow voice, and trademark jerseys bearing the number 205, the area code of his hometown.
That hometown looms large in the background of Ruben. The son of two teachers, Studdard was born in Birmingham on July 14, 1978. As a child, he sang at his parents’ Baptist church, but it wasn’t until college that he became serious about music. Abandoning a promising career in football that would lead to an athletic scholarship at Alabama A&M University, he decided to switch his major and study voice at the school, graduating with a degree in 2000. He started his professional career as a singer for Just a Few Cats, a Birmingham-based jazz and soul band. During 2002, Ruben joined one of the group’s backup singers at an audition for the second American Idol, making the first round of cuts at his local audition, then winning himself a slot on the national television program.
Studdard made a big impression from the start. Where most of his competitors were pop star wannabes hungry to win the competition, Ruben was quiet and exceedingly laid-back, impressing audiences and judges alike with his large voice and easy confidence. He soon climbed to the top of the pack and stayed there throughout the show, only once being voted into an elimination round. By that point, American Idol 2003 had turned into a horse race between Studdard and Clay Aiken, a skinny, geeky kid from the South whose appearance and taste were nearly the polar opposite of Ruben’s. Like many horse races, this one ended in a photo finish, with Ruben beating Clay by a few thousand votes in May 2003.
Within a month after the end of competition, Ruben’s first single, “Flying Without Wings,” was released concurrently with Clay’s “This Is the Night,” a release scheme designed to keep the competition alive. Aiken beat Studdard to the top of the charts, and shortly afterward, it was announced that the planned joint August release of their debuts would be delayed, and each record would be released separately. As Aiken rode a wave of popularity that eclipsed Studdard’s, Ruben worked frenetically — recording his debut, touring with American Idol, filming a cameo for Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, and suing 205 Flava Inc., the company that made the jerseys he famously wore on American Idol, claiming that the clothes makers illegally profited from his image (205 Flava Inc. countered that they paid the singer $1,000 to wear the jerseys on the show during the competition, and presented checks written to Ruben’s brother and manager on MTV News to support their claim).
As Ruben worked, his album’s release date kept getting pushed back, first from an August release, back to October, and then to November. Studdard’s sessions boasted a variety of producers and collaborators, including Fat Joe, Missy Elliott, and R. Kelly, whose names were leaked to press during recording in an effort to shore up Ruben’s hip-hop and R&B credentials. When the finished product, entitled Soulful, was finally released on December 9, 2003, it didn’t boast either the highly touted Missy or Kelly tracks (though Fat Joe made the cut), but it did display a distinct hip-hop-flavored R&B bent, which stood in contrast to the pop-oriented efforts by other American Idol contestants Clay Aiken, Kelly Clarkson, and Justin Guarini. The gospel album I Need an Angel followed one year later. In fall 2006, Studdard revisited his urban roots with the aptly named third album The Return, which featured such contributors as Scott Storch and Ne-Yo. – Stephen Thomas Erlewine